Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

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People Watching: Our Final Night In Paris

If you are a frequent reader of my posts, you will probably have noticed that I like to make up stories about people and things I don’t know anything about. The pleasure, for me as a blogger, is that I’m not bound in by only what I read or hear.  The type of posts I choose to write free me of mere facts.  I can invent an entire world.

True, many of my older blogs dealt with memories and dwelling in those memories. This post is something of both. I’ve tried to record, with a few meager photos and some scribbled notes, my thoughts and imaginings about watching the people on the streets of Paris, on a warm day in late May. This is a fraction of what I feel I could write about, but I’m a guy who needs limits.

We walk the streets. We sit in cafes and bistros and taverns. I sit and I think. I sit and imagine.

I watch the pretty young women riding bicycles, backs straight, skirts flowing and smiles on their faces. I wish they wore helmets. Some do, most don’t.

Along the narrow sidewalks, confident women with swishing skirts, breezy and full of thoughts of the future.  Behind them, are dignified older women with chunky necklaces. Some walk with friends…some are alone. I always wonder about an elderly woman alone. Is it by choice? Is she missing someone…a female partner or older husband?

I always wonder about these things.

I look at the young brash men, full of exuberance, full of expectations of a life yet to be lived. They are defiant and gentle from one second to the next. I observe no macho strutting. I see confidence and disregard for a danger that may lurk around the corner as they speed off on their scooters.

Children ride scooters, girls with pink helmets, boys with blue. Always a parent to wait at the corner. Always a mother to hold a hand. Always a father to proudly guide his son to the next corner and to their life beyond.

There are old grizzled men who look like they are keeping a secret. Standing on the corner, they smoke and think and they stare in the middle distance. Are they trying to forget? Trying to remember?

Next to them are the handsome middle-age men, comfortable in their middle years. Did they just leave the apartment of their mistress? Did they just say good-bye to their mistress? Was this their first afternoon with their mistress?

Some of the teenage girls seem wary, unsure of how to present themselves. Others are older than their years and know exactly how they look to the others boys, or girls, on those narrow streets.

There are more women, beautiful and lithe as models, chatting on their cellphones.

In the cafes, handsome men, handsome as Yves Montand, sip a mid-day white wine. Nearby are the waiters, black jackets and white aprons that extend to their ankles. They are ever vigilant and attentive to their patrons in need of a second espresso. Elsewhere in the bar are lonely men and lonely women, reading and holding onto their glass of rose or beer.

I feel like I’ve watched a thousand lives pass in front of me. Behind each face they hold a history of their life, secretly in their minds until a foreigner like me intrudes into their memories, inventing lives for them they surely never imagined.

It’s getting close to dusk. I hear sirens, so many sirens that I think there’s been another terrorist attack. The sirens. Is Putin in town?

The buzzing roar of the scooters, some small and innocent like a Vespa and others large…willing and able to wear the Harley crest.

At our last restaurant, I snapped a photo of a woman fanning herself (it was humid). It was one of those flirtatious Carmen-style fans.  She was totally absorbed in a conversation with her three friends and totally oblivious to the fact that an American, grey-haired and middle-aged (?) had stolen her privacy.

Some cultures believe that taking a photograph of someone, somehow robs them of their souls. Do I have her soul in my iPhone? In the cloud?

Yes, I do believe that I have stolen her soul. In years to come, I can scroll back and look at her. I possess her image. She and her friends will soon forget this evening. They will move into new lives and become different.

And when I remember that final evening in that Italian restaurant in Paris, all those people who stepped in front of my camera…I have their images frozen. And I can thaw them out anytime and play with new versions of a thousand life stories.

One or two of them may touch the truth.

 

[All photos are mine.]

 

 

The “Popcorn” Man

[The Street Vender. Photo is mine.]

At first I thought he was selling a popcorn necklace. He would walk up and down the rows of diners, whose tables (here in Paris) always face the streets. And he would peddle his “popcorn” necklaces to those at the tables that were closest to the sidewalk.

Yes, I thought he was selling “popcorn” necklaces. If I bought one, would I eat it for dessert as I walked home? He seemed to be at every restaurant on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The more I saw the man, the more I thought about his life. I lived in New York City for almost three decades so I thought I knew about street/restaurant venders. Mostly those individuals sold roses, or played Do-Wop, or simply held out an old Greek coffee cup that all the delis and hot dog guys sold coffee in.

They held out their empty cups.  I had no way to discern whether or not they were truly “homeless”, truly “veterans”, truly in need. I had to go on instinct. Was this just a pan-handler (and there are more and more on the streets of New York) or someone truly in need of two quarters or three dimes.

So, I thought more about the “popcorn” man as the days went by. People rarely bought anything from him. I would watch him work the rows of diners. Most paid him no attention.

I thought about him at night when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about him when I walked through the Louvre. I thought about him when I sat and contemplated Notre Dame.

What was his life like?  Did he go home after his rounds? Who gave him the necklaces to sell? Did he have a family? Did he have to sell his wares to feed his children? Was he a widower who went home alone to an empty flat? Was he a happy man? Did he hold dark secrets in his heart?  Was he even married?

But, the real question that kept looming in my mind was quite simple.

Was this man lonely? Was his only human contact with those who pretended he wasn’t even there or brushed him off as an annoyance to their Parisian dinner?

When I looked at him, I tried to work out his life…but, clearly, that was an impossible task.

Until tonight.

I made sure we were seated up front, near the sidewalk. I had my iPhone. I wanted to ask him his name. I wanted to take his photo. I wanted to make some kind of contact.

And, I wanted to buy the necklace of “popcorn”.  I would eat it, as dessert on the way back to the hotel.

I nearly gave up on finding him.  Then, there he was. Four tables away. Then three.

Finally, he stopped at our table. I indicated that I’d like to buy his merchandise. He smiled and sold me the necklace for 3 euros.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bangladesh,” he replied.

Before he could walk away…before I could ask his name, I asked what it was that I just bought. From the first touch I knew it wasn’t popcorn.

[The Jasmine Necklace. The Photo is mine.]

“It’s Jasmine. Jasmine flowers,” he said as he walked off, moving on to another restaurant. Ten seconds after we had spoken, I lost him among the the pedestrians.

Now our room is filled with the scent of Jasmine.

I’d like to think (maybe it’ll help me sleep) that I made a quiet street vendor smile, even for a second, and fall asleep to the scent of Jasmine.

 

Street Scene In Paris

[Paris is a city of light and charm.]

It was our first day in the City of Light. Getting there involved subjecting ourselves to a subtle form of modern torture.  We were taking a “red-eye” from JFK to Paris.  We flew American Airlines because we’re addicted to air miles.  I won’t tell you how many miles I’ve accrued, but I will say that I earned every one of them.  My intent is not to dis American Airlines in this blog, but I can’t help but convey how long and endless and really awful the flight was. The food was fine, considering it was airline fare. But, for a trans-Atlantic flight, most everything was woefully below par.  The screens for the in-flight movie were not viewable unless one wanted to combine eye-strain with minor neck injuries.

At the end of the nearly seven hour flight, I thought I needed a massage on 22nd Street. My legs hurt, my back hurt and there was not enough leg room to raise a knee to tie a shoe lace or stretch a muscle in the lumbar region.

But, I digress.

After a two-hour taxi ride to our hotel near St. Sulpice, I was ready for one thing. A two-hour nap. After a three-hour nap, we pulled ourselves together and headed to see some places we loved in the Latin Quarter. I wanted to climb to the bell towers of Notre Dame, but the line (in a blazing sun) put me off.

I can’t take the heat and the direct sun.  I’m Irish.

So, we headed over to Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which is a must stop for me.  I love the place.  But, I didn’t need another book to carry on our journey, so I opted for a beer instead.

And this is where the story begins.

It was a street full of foot traffic.

[It all took place on a busy street, just like this.]

We chose to sit facing the street just off the Rue St Michel. It’s busy and touristy.  As we sat in the shade, I noticed there was a homeless man sleeping on a foam pad surrounded by a few pieces of luggage.  I can’t say he was truly homeless, but I noticed all the signs.  We sat for forty minutes, reluctant to go back to the hotel and too tired to explore much more of the Latin Quarter.

I watched the man who slept.  He was in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Another line of thought came to me.  I had heard of the deranged people who drove trucks into crowds and even went on stabbing rampaged.  I wondered about the SWAT patrols and where they were hiding out.  Then I spotted three well protected (but not heavily armed) police wander by.

A few minutes later, three more SWAT members (two female and one male) approached the sleeping guy on the sidewalk in front of me.

I was prepared for violence that would later be seen on YouTube.  They prodded the guy to determine if he was alive, dead, drunk, stoned or flying on some other drug.  I was prepared to not like what I was about to see.

Instead, the three officers, finally roused the man and got him to his feet.  I was sure they were going to cart him away…

But, they helped him walk to a spot by a street lamp.  Out of the way of the amount of foot traffic.  They dragged his belongings to his side.  He lay back and fell asleep.

The officers walked away.  No hassles.  No arrests.  No clubbing.

I wondered about the man’s life and what brought him to this busy sidewalk.  Then I felt grateful that he was in Paris, where no one used clubs or made him vanish into the bright light of the afternoon.

And all this happened within sight of this:

c

[Notre Dame Cathedral]

 

Mystery of the Paris Photograph

[Photo source: unknown.]

I don’t know where it came from.  It was leaning against our brass lamp…since I don’t know when.

A year or two ago, I began to glean the Kodak slides and other photos that came into my possession after my father passed away in 2004.  There was a collection of letters and photos that took me months to sort out.

Until.

Until I noticed a black and white snap shot of a place in Paris.  On the reverse side of the snap was this handwritten note: “Paris, France, Jul. ’55”.

I have no memory of finding this photo in the belongings of my father or mother when they passed away…my mother in 1992 and my father in 2004.

But, where did this small snap shot come from?  It appeared, but never noticed, on our little table where we watch movies and TV shows.  It just showed up.  Could I have set it aside at some point?  If so, I don’t recall.

But, I can say that I know for sure that my mother or father never visited Paris in 1955.  That’s something I would have known about.  Or was there a secret visit to Paris by my parents when I was seven years old? I don’t think so.  I would have noticed.

So, who took this photo and wrote the location and date on the reverse side?  The Moulin Rouge,  at the foot of the hill that leads to Sacre Coeur, in the Montmartre district, where the showgirls have small Parisian breasts and horses gallop across the stage and the bottle of Champagne comes with the dinner and your bill is about $100 for the evening.

It’s a historical place and a huge tourist attraction.

But, who in my family took this photo?  Was it anybody in my family at all?

So, how did it end up leaning on the lamp of our dinner table?

Kissing The Moon

[Source: Google search.]

So, there is a story.  It goes something like this:

A certain Chinese poet, Li Po, was said to have tried to kiss the reflection of the moon from his boat.  He leaned to plant the kiss…fell overboard  and drowned.  What is the moral of the story?

I am fascinated by the moon.  The werewolves, in legend, were dictated by the full moon.  The moon’s 28 day cycle has been linked with the monthly cycle  of a woman.

The moon.

I may have had my first kiss on a night of the Full Moon. I just don’t remember…I was moon struck. I walked home from a date one night when I was in high school.  My readers will know who the girl was.  I stepped into the playground of the elementary school where I attended for eight years.  It was a Catholic school.  There was a cross on the peak of the ‘tower’…I don’t know what else to call it.  I aligned the cross with the full moon that was rising over the Susquehanna River.  I looked across the street where, earlier, I had been sitting with my girlfriend on a stone bench…still there along Front Street…watching the moon rise over the ripples of the slow-moving river.

But, after my session with the moon and the cross, I walked home strangely altered…how? I can not say, but the experience stays with me.

Did we really walk on the moon?  I gaze at it often and wonder how, when a laptop crashes, we mustered the technology to go all the way there and come back…a dozen times.

As a science teacher,  I once had a plexiglass disk with a moon rock in my hands.  It was unreal.

I used to talk to my fading sweetheart, when I was in college, from a pay phone…I could see the moon through the glass…I asked her if she would look out of her window, 1,200 miles away to see the same moon.

The same moon that shed it’s light on all of history.

So, what is the real story I’m trying to tell?  I’m not sure, I guess it’s about dreaming, night and desiring something that may be the last fatal desire.

Don’t try to kiss the moon…kiss the one you love…or love the one you’re with.

The moon.

[A Full Moon in Paris. My photograph.]

68 Steps Along The Nave Of Wells Cathedral

WellsNave

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I was climbing the endless steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris.  My wife was at my side.  We paused on the 67th step, and, in the warm Parisian sun, we turned and looked back at the City of Lights.  We kissed on that 67th step.

It was my 67th birthday.

Today, I am 68 years old and we are sitting in a cafe in Wells, England.  This is in the county of Somerset.  I think that’s a beautiful name…Somerset.

A few minutes ago we walked down the middle aisle of the nave of the Cathedral.  We were approaching the great arches that somehow set this Cathedral apart from the other massive Gothic buildings we’ve seen.

I looked up at the simple vaulting on the ceiling.  At my feet were large slabs of marble that marked and described the dead who are buried beneath the church.  Organ music played quietly and with a simplicity that reflected the architecture.  This place totally lacked the high grandeur of a Westminster Abbey.

We paused—68 steps along the nave.  We happened to be standing on the grave of a married couple, dead now for centuries.  They would rest beneath the floor until the Cathedral walls crumbled to the ground.

I turned and kissed my wife.

We would be together until the stones of our lives crumble.

I wonder where we will kiss when I turn 69 years old in 2016.